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Tuesday, July 1, 2014

What not to miss in Córdoba!

After about eight months in our apartment, I have to say I am very happy with our choice. It wasn't our first choice, but I have to admit that it was a better choice for us, even if our first choice was absolutely gorgeous. I remember part of the reason it took us such a long time to find a place was that we had a strict list of things we needed in an apartment. One of them was air conditioner. Obviously, we're in Italy, and Europe, so AC is not the given norm it is in the United States. Still, I don't know about Jaime, but it really didn't hit me that our apartment didn't have an air conditioner until sometime in February when I abruptly woke up one night with the sudden realization (I swear this actually happened). I worried a little, but there wasn't much we could do about it at that point and Jaime hates it when I complain.

Well, now it's June July and pretty much from one day to the next, summer came in and with it those glorious temperatures that I miss oh so much during the rest of the year. But you can see where I am going with all this.... suffice it to say that yesterday a few weeks back we couldn't fall asleep because of how damn hot it was. Poor Jaime was so desperate that he almost bought an air conditioner right then and there online before I could reason with him that it was three in the morning and it was not the time to be making those kinds of decisions. 

That's the latest with our life right now in Italy. 

On the other hand, I've been MIA again, because well, this tends to happen with me. But I've been non-stop busy in preparations for a visit from my brother and sister-in-law. Now that they're finally here (!!!) I have two days to actually relax and sit in front of a computer (which I haven't touched in pretty much a month) before our summer travel kicks it up to full gear. 

Enough with all my complaints and excuses and let's take a trip back in time to breezier weather and the amazing sights of Córdoba!

Two of the other main sights in Córdoba are the Cathedral of Córdoba and the Alacazar of the Christian Monarchs. After we got of the train at around 11 am, we had a second breakfast (yes, we're hobbits...and if you don't get that joke, you suck)...

After second breakfast, we headed to the Cathedral. While it's officially a Cathedral because it is obviously a Catholic church, it is informally called La Mezquita, or the Mosque, because it used to be a Mosque and still holds the architectural quality of a Mosque.

However, before it was a Mosque, it was actually a basilica (this is the kind of history that you can only find in Spain). When the Muslims invaded Córdoba, they destroyed the church and began to build a mosque (this was in 785), which would eventually become the most important of Western Islam. Then in 1236, King Ferdinand III (this is not the same Ferdinand that was married to Isabella and sent Christopher Columbus on his voyage, etc. This took place 200 years before his time) reconquered Córdoba and oversaw additions to the Mosque that have the undeniable Christian aspect integrated within the moorish architecture, some examples which you can see below. The picture on the left is the detail of the doors, while the picture of the right is the Christian portion of the Mezquita.

Personally, I love moorish architecture, but to see it intertwined with the Christian and European architecture is truly a wonderful sight. The Cathedral is absolutely beautiful and unique.

As for the Alcazar, I actually liked the one in Córdoba more than the one in Seville. Its official name is El Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos or The Alcazar of the Cristian Monarchs. It's had quite a vibrant history. It was taken by the Christians in 1236 during the Reconquista, it was used as headquarters of the Inquisitions and also headquarters against the Moors in Granada. More recently, it was used by Napoleon's troops as a garrison in 1810.

My favorite part was the gardens, which were beautiful and extremely well-kept. They had fountains, pools, beautiful flowers, and also statues of the Catholic Monarchs and Christopher Columbus, as here was where he asked Isabel and Ferdinand for funds for his journey west.

Here are some more pictures from the Alcazar's gardens:

The view from the top of the main tower, which was actually built for the Inquisition, of the city's beautiful white-washed walls. 

For more posts on our trip to Spain, check out:

Los Patios de Cordoba
Four Days in Madrid

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Los Patios de Córdoba, a must-see festival in Andalusia!

After an amazing weekend in Madrid, we got up bright and early (literally the crack of dawn) so that my uncle could take us to the train station before he went to work. From there, we would go to Córdoba!

Córdoba is the capital of the province of Córdoba, a city that has been ruled by the Romans during Ancient times, by the Muslims, and finally by the Christian monarchs after the Reconquista in 1236 (fun fact: the Spanish Reconquista is considered to be a period of about 700 years until 1492, when the Catholic Monarchs conquered Granada). This is very evident in its architecture. It is a relatively small city and possibly my favorite out of our entire trip. It's very picturesque and also quiet, as I guess it's not as popular with tourists as Seville.

As my uncle told us when we first arrived, we probably chose the best week to be in Spain and visit Córdoba and Seville because of the festivals taking place in each city. When we arrived in Córdoba, La Fiesta de los Patios de Cordoba was taking place, The Festival of the Gardens of Córdoba in English. Basically, during this festival, people in the historic center of Córdoba decorate their own private gardens and open them to the public free of charge (except for whatever you wish to donate).

Did I mention that the Fiesta is part of UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage list?

The First Patio we saw
When I say they decorate, I mean decorate, as in landscaping on steroids, as it was some of the most beautiful gardens I had ever seen in my life. Because of the moorish influence in architecture in the historic center, their gardens are are more like courtyards. The family home is usually built around this courtyard, so that it ends up being like an enclosed rectangle (or circle, or whatever), and then the courtyard is filled with plants and maybe a fountain. Curiously enough, it is so nice and cool in these courtyards, considering how HOT it is in the streets.

This one had a cute little well.
Jaime and I loved this architectural style so much that if we were ever to build our own home from scratch we would definitely need to find a way to incorporate it.

Throughout our two days in Córdoba, we visited probably about 20 different Patios, with the help of a little map they give you with different routes highlighted. We started on Monday afternoon after we went to the Cathedral and were thoroughly impressed. On Tuesday, we took a different route and the courtyards were markedly more elaborate.

Then we got to our favorite...

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the most beautiful courtyard I have EVER seen!
Did I mention how the people participating in this don't do it just for fun, they also compete for prizes  (involving money) every year. This particular courtyard above is featured on the cover of the book they will release with pictures of all the different Patios (about 70 or 80 in all, I think). I don't know if this courtyard won, but it definitely should've. When we saw this, Jaime went camera trigger happy. The owner was so proud of his patio that he would give Jaime ideas about the best angles to take the pictures. So we gladly obliged.

Absolutely NO FILTER, PHOTOSHOP, nothing!

Then you look up and see more color!
If I could replicate this in my own backyard, I would. It was so beautiful, I could only imagine what it would be like to wake up everyday and enjoy this view. I could also only imagine the work it takes to maintain this and keep it beautiful so I give props to the owner.

All in all, this was a festival the likes of which I had never experienced before anywhere else (that I've been to at least). For anyone that wants to visit Córdoba, if you can plan your visit around this festival, I would HIGHLY recommend doing so because it is definitely a unique, once-in-a-lifetime experience.

For more pictures of Los Patios, check out My Napoleon Complex's Facebook page!

My other post on our trip to Spain:

-Madrid - http://thenapoleoncomplex.blogspot.it/2014/05/four-days-in-madrid.html

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Four Days in Madrid!

As far as I'm concerned, I live in Italy, but my heart will always belong to Spain. Both sides of my family can trace their heritage back to Spain and I also have my grandfather, uncles, and cousins living there. Living in Rome, it would be easier than ever to visit them, so one of the first trips Jaime and I had planned spending a couple of weeks in Spain during the Spring and visiting Madrid, as well as Cordoba, Seville, and Granada in Andalusia.

The last time I visited Spain was in 2005 for my uncle's wedding and I was a young teenager. My parents and I were there for three weeks and we traveled all through northern Spain. Some details are hazy, but I remember having a blast. Since then, I've grown up and realized that a country is much more than the two weeks of nonstop sightseeing that a tourist experiences (Italy has definitely taught me that). I have to admit that I was a little scared that maybe I would arrive and realize that it wasn't the perfect place I remembered from my childhood memories. 

But I am happy to say that my fears were completely unfounded, as Madrid was just as beautiful as I remembered it and significantly more beautiful than Jaime remembers it (from when he visited in 2008). Of course, since both of us had been to Madrid (and Jaime had seen everything), our time there was mainly to spend time with my family. Nonetheless, we did manage to hit up some tourist spots.

We arrived at Madrid's airport on a Wednesday night, immediately had our first fill of tapas (stay tuned for a post on all of Spain's magnificent food and where to get it), and started our sightseeing Thursday morning.

View of El Parque del Buen Retiro's Entrance
Our first stop was El Parque del Buen Retiro, literally translated to Park of the Pleasant Retreat. It is Madrid's Central Park, a park that formally belonged to the monarchy until it was made public in the 19th century. It's beautifully kept and manicured, at a contrast with some of Italy's parks which tend to be a little more wild. Some of the most famous features that we saw are the Monument to Alfonso XII, the Crystal Palace (which was unfortunately closed since it was Spain's Labor Day), and the Statue of the Fallen Angel. 

How crazy, cute, and weird is this tree?!?!
In front of The Crystal Palace
After, we spent most of the day bar hopping, eating, and taking full advantage of my uncle and his girlfriend's knowledge of good eats in the city. Along the way we visited La Plaza Mayor, the huge and principal square of Madrid (and one of the few places Jaime had not previously gone to *gasp*) and La Puerta del Sol, km 0 or the center for the network of Spanish roads. 

Cañitas (beer)
The next day, we planned on taking a day trip to Toledo with the entire family, but unfortunately once we arrived the city was packed to capacity with people due to the fact that it was a holiday in Madrid and all the Madrileños had our same of idea. After spending almost an hour driving around and not being able to find parking, we had no choice but to call it quits and turn around back to Madrid. 

One of the few pictures on the way to Toledo. I LOVE the Osborne Bull. You can find them all over Spain's highways!
Instead, we had lunch (somehow I don't think I've ever spent a vacation eating as much as I did in Spain) and hit up El Museo del Prado, which had been closed the previous day due to Labor Day. A quick tip for el Prado, if you're like us and like art but are not planning to spend six hours in an art museum, it's beneficial to go after 5 pm, when the entrance is free and you still have a good two or three hours before the museum closes. El Prado has an excellent collection of art, with particular emphasis on Spanish artists such as Goya and Diego Velasquez, and others such as Rubens and Titian. 

On Saturday, we went to El Escorial on the outskirts of Madrid, the historical residence of the kings of Spain. It was a place neither Jaime nor I had yet been to and a UNESCO site so obviously you know we had to go. Apart from its church and its library, the most interesting part of El Escorial is the tombs of most of the Spanish kings from the last 500 years, from the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (or Charles I in Spain). It is definitely a good place to visit if one has the time, but I will admit I expected it to be a little more grand, as most of the tour was spent looking at art paintings from obscure artists. Also, if you're visiting during the summer months, it's probably best to arrive early like we did, because the line to buy tickets when we left in the early afternoon was huge.

El Escorial & Its Gardens

My uncle & cousins
On the drive back home, I was pointing out the many cows and bulls along the way when my uncle says to me, "You want to see some cows up close?" and obviously I was totally up for it. That afternoon he took us to a friend of his's milk cow farm (meaning they aren't killed for their meat) where we had the opportunity to pet some baby cows and see the afternoon milking of the adult cows. This was something completely new for this city girl!

How cute is this baby cow?!?
Sunday was Spain's Mother's Day, which meant that it was the perfect time to get the family over and make some homemade paella! My uncle is the king of paellas and we were extremely lucky to have the real deal and not some of the fake frozen stuff they serve at restaurants. 

Picture while the paella was cooking. Unfortunately nobody thought to take a picture when it was done because we were too busy eating it!
During the afternoon, I left Jaime behind enjoying some relax time and drinking Gin & Tonics while my uncle and I took a ride on his motorcycle through the Spanish mountains and countryside to the nearby town of Segovia (post will be updated with pictures as soon as I get them from him!). We took a stroll through the historical center (also a UNESCO site) and took pictures to make Jaime jealous :).

When we got back home, I was excited to show off my pictures to Jaime, but wait!! Turns out my other uncle managed to get some last minute tickets to the night's Real Madrid game so he went ahead with Jaime. They had tried to reach us but of course, we were on the bike and didn't realize it.

Now, we all know soccer is a way of life in Europe...and everywhere else in the world except the U.S. Even though I've lived in the U.S. my dad and all his family are very into soccer, especially Real Madrid. So it's always been a dream of mine to go to a game in their stadium, El Bernabeu, and there I was about to miss it!

All I have to say is thank God for motorcycles because if it hadn't been for that, we would have never made it. My uncle and I got back on the bike and raced to the stadium, which was a good 20 minutes away. But luckily, parking was not an issue on a bike, so we ended up parking pretty much 20 feet away from the entrance, where Jaime and my uncle were waiting for us with the tickets (well, let's be honest, my uncle waited for us, Jaime was in his seat snapping away pictures like a crazy).

It was the perfect way to end our weekend in Madrid. Not only did we get to see a game, but we had AMAZING seats. Like, never-going-to-happen-again and I-could-pretty-much-count-Cristiano-Ronaldo's-pores seats. Unfortunately, Real Madrid only ended up tying the game (even though they made a winning goal at the last second but it didn't count). But still the experience of being there and feeling the energy and hearing the crowd go crazy for a Real Madrid goal was just completely unforgettable. Yet another thing I got to cross off my bucket list.

Look at those beautiful pores!

At least I got to wear my jersey!
After the game, my uncle and I made it home on the bike in about 15 minutes, while my other uncle and Jaime had to sit through traffic :). But we didn't have much time to relax as we had to pack and get ready to take an early train the next day for our next adventure, this time in Cordoba!

For more pictures of our adventures in Madrid (as well as the rest of Spain), hit up My Napoleon Complex's facebook page!

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Horseback Riding through Tuscany

First off, I have to say Happy Mother's Day! and auguri! to all the mothers out there! You guys rock! I am writing this post from beautiful Granada, which as some of you may realize, is not in Italy! Jaime and I have spent the past week and a half in Spain and it has been absolutely unforgettable. But before I get ahead of myself and start rambling off about all the things we've done, I want to talk about our adventure horseback riding in Tuscany!

One of the things I had always wanted to do before coming to Italy was horseback riding in Tuscany. It's a tad bit touristy, but I figure if you're ever going to go horseback riding, might as well do it with some beautiful scenery in the background!

We went on a two-hour tour with Equitania, who offer riding lessons and tours. It was great because it was basically a private tour, just Jaime and I, and the lady leading us was very friendly. She took our camera and was basically our photographer the entire two hours.

I have to admit that I was scared at first. I had never been on a horse before, except the basic ponies little kids ride at birthday parties. The morning started off a little cloudy and I thought it an omen. I thought, "maybe this wasn't such a great idea." The idea was further solidified when we arrived at the place and the three beautiful, but giant, horses were there waiting for us. When I got on the horse and looked down for the first time at how far the ground seemed, I was terrified. Not to mention that I had to control this huge animal by myself.

But as soon as we started moving, my fears dissipated, as my horse was extremely gentle. Although I have to admit, he pretty much did whatever he wanted. He would speed up and slow down as he saw fit, but I felt safe the whole time. At the very least, if he didn't listen to me, he would listen to his owner's instructions.

Jaime was lucky and got a younger horse (probably because he has more experience riding), a black beauty named Darius. In our little line, every time Darius tried to get in front of Yazil (my horse), Yazil would start walking faster to stay at the front. Obviously Yazil and I got along extremely well.

Another one of the horses on the farm. So beautiful, it reminds me of a unicorn!
We had a great time, the views were spectacular, although I do wish it had been a little further into spring as some of the trees were still bare from winter. Of course, by the end of it, I hurt everywhere, but I'm happy I didn't chicken out of doing this. Now, I finally get to say I crossed it off my bucket list!

This is my last post on our trip to Tuscany, just in time as I am DYING to start writing about Spain! Stay tuned for my posts this week!

For more posts on our trip to Tuscany:

-Visiting Florence (Lessons Learned & Some Do's & Don'ts)
-The Towns of Tuscany: Siena, San Gimignano, Montepulciano, Volterra, & Pienza

Disclaimer: Jaime & I were not compensated in any way by Equitania. All our opinions are our own.

Friday, May 2, 2014

The Towns of Tuscany: Siena, San Gimignano, Montepulciano, Volterra, & Pienza

Tuscany is known for all its charming little towns and the great thing about living in Italy is that you actually have time to visit as many as your heart desires. Here's a little photo diary of all the places we visited on this trip to Tuscany:


Siena was obviously in our list of places to see because it is one of the three major cities in Tuscany (along with Florence and Pisa) and its historic center is a UNESCO site. We went the Sunday after we arrived in Tuscany for mass (that is the only time you can enter the Cathedral for free). Then we returned the following Saturday and Jaime paid his 4€ to go inside the Cathedral and take some pictures since we weren't allowed to do so after the mass. The main sights are the Siena Cathedral and the main piazza, Piazza del Campo. In my opinion, while the Cathedral is indeed beautiful, Siena itself can be seen in its entirety in an afternoon or a day at most.

San Gimignano

San Gimignano was a very charming little town, one of my favorites. It's great to walk around and it has a bunch of ceramic shops where everything is to die for. Its historic center is also a UNESCO site and known for its medieval architecture and its towers, which can be seen from afar miles away. It also has some spectacular views of the countryside, some of which I included in my previous post: Presenting Tuscany.

Volterra & Montepulciano

I'm going to be honest here. Volterra and Montepulciano are beautiful and interesting medieval towns in their own right, Montepulciano produces some great wine, but there is only one reason I wanted to go to here: Twilight. I'm not going to apologize for being caught up in the craze like everyone else. I went to the midnight premiers, read the books, the whole deal. Volterra is the location in the second book of the evil coven of vampires, the Volturi, while Montepulciano was actually the filming location for the movie.

Above Pictures from Volterra
Where's EDWARD?!?!?

I thought this was a cute little display.


Finally, the last town we went to see before we headed back to Rome was Pienza, where we also had lunch. Pienza has an interesting history. It was the birthplace of Pope Pius II and once he became pope he had it rebuilt as the "ideal Renaissance town." According to Wikipedia, it was the first application of humanist urban planning. Once it was completed, the Pope encouraged Cardinals to buy property there, which lead to a palazzo being owned by Rodrigo Borgia, who later became pope (anyone else as obsessed with the Borgia series as we are? If you haven't seen it, I HIGHLY recommend). This town is also a UNESCO site.

My favorite thing about Pienza, however, were these three streets that were back to back to back. The first one was called Via del Bacio (Kiss in Italian), then the next one was Via dell'Amore (love), and the last one, which you can king of see in the picture on the right, was Via della fortuna (fortune, or luck). They were perfect for a couple of romantic pictures!

Those are the towns we visited during our week in Tuscany. We were also in Montecchielo, which I talked about in the Presenting Tuscany post, but we didn't really walk around too much because we were too busy finding our winding road. There's one last post relating to Tuscany that I have to do, about our horseback riding tour! Stay tuned next week!

Check out my other posts about Tuscany:

- Presenting...Tuscany (and the Winding Road)
- Two Days in Florence!

To see more pictures, check out My Napoleon Complex's Facebook page!